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He doesnít understand women at all, yet he took a role in which he was directed by a woman Ė a young woman at that Ė and found that he loved it, Bill Murray tells Jenny Cooney Carrillo as he recalls his experience making the wonderfully dry comedy, Lost In Translation, for director Sofia Coppola.

Bill Murray may finally be taken seriously for his latest comedy, Lost in Translation. The 52-year-old comic icon stars in the critically acclaimed film written and directed by Sofia Coppola, daughter of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. In the film he plays Bob Harris, a Hollywood movie star who arrives at a Tokyo hotel to shoot an alcohol commercial and is suffering from apathy and jetlag when he is befriended by another jetlagged hotel occupant Charlotte, a newlywed ignored by her photographer husband. Forget Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Meatballs and Stripes. This is a performance so subtle and witty that Oscar buzz is deafening.†

How did you feel when you first heard the director was so young and inexperienced?
She knows what sheís doing. The script was only 75 pages when it was completed but everything thatís up there on screen was all in her mind, not written down, and it came out. I didnít really know Sofia but I knew her dad a little and met him a few times. But you donít know if talent is going to skip a generation or not. Thereís always that terror. So when I met her, I was very impressed because she got an enormous buildup from a friend of mine and I couldnít have been more happy to find that she was composed and self assured and self confident without any kind of hint of inherited talent or anything. She was just her own person. She made me feel very comfortable with her and watching her operate, she gets what she wants in a nice way with manners. And to me manners are really where it starts. If you donít have manners youíre not really going to succeed in life too much, but she managed to get what she wanted while not losing her manners. I have enormous respect for her.

The movie was very funny but not a traditional comedy. What did you think?
She wrote the laughs and I was surprised how big those laughs were. The laughs are big, hard laughs and those were some of the biggest laughs Iíve ever gotten in movies Ė even movies that were comedies with a capital ĎKí! But the approach is pretty much the same, although I donít want to tell you any secrets. You just have to be truthful when you speak and if the situation is set up properly, all you have to do is knock it down. You donít have to roll your eyes and flap your ears to get it done but itís a very interesting role because itís a guy whoís lived a little and he has to laugh at himself to stay alive. And when youíre a big movie star slob and youíre not able to laugh at yourself, youíre pathetic. So we wanted someone that wasnít going to be pathetic and thatís why the laughs were important.

Did it help to shoot the movie in a real Tokyo hotel?
The environment was extremely helpful. Itís a claustrophobic hotel and youíre way the hell up there. The lobby of this hotel is at the 50th floor and this was not long after 9/11 so that it was very unnerving to look straight down and it was a very uncomfortable feeling to know you were up so high in a town with lots and lots of earthquakes. So youíre always breathing air-conditioned air and youíre in a tight space and the slippers they give you are size 8 and youíre wearing funny, little kimonos and things that are too small so you feel itís a foreign, alien environment. I also enjoyed it far more than I expected and I would say to people that think weíre criticising Japan, I think people are going to want to go there after seeing this movie because it made it look like it was a blast to me. But the claustrophobia was helpful and even the language is impenetrable so itís daunting to go outside your hotel because if you go a block away and get lost, nobody can help you. Itís a myth that the whole world speaks English. In Japan, nobody speaks English!

Is your technique the same for comedy and drama?
I just know what Iím supposed to do in a scene and try to get myself out of the way and do it. I try not to get too mental about it. I try to relax, and let it hit me for the first time, whatever the situation, and just try and literally clean the slate every single time and do it fresh. I donít try to carry a lot of baggage into it. Your own psyche and everything you have is in play if youíre not in the way of it.

How much did you collaborate with Sofia. How much did you let yourself be directed?
When you take the job you are saying, ĎI agree to let you direct me and I like the script enough that Iím going to show up.í But with this script I was very impressed and knew somebody was going for something different here. This is not an ordinary day at the races and it suggested that it was going to be very challenging to do because there was a lot implied but not stated. A lot of the work would be non-verbal. So I had to really commit myself to being the guy. Sofia liked to say his name, Bob Harris, and as often as I could get her to say Bob Harris, I knew I was doing my job connecting and respecting the director.†

Did it make any difference to you that she was a woman?
I knew when I went in to meet her that I had to be careful because I donít understand women at all really. Theyíre a big mystery for me and working with them is always a bit different because thereís sort of a given going in that theyíre mysterious, so you donít know what the heck to do! And having worked with actresses Ė good grief, they can be really rough and make it difficult to figure them out because their emotions are in front and theyíre just different beings. You canít just head butt a lady director like you can a guy director! So I wanted to make her happy but I wanted to make sure I was not losing myself there. But on an artistic level I have respect for her and she didnít let me down and I never compromised my own stuff and she never asked me for anything less than what I was going to do anyway, so it was always better.

Why do you think women are so different on movie sets?
I really believe that women in movies are key and on every movie Iíve ever been on, even with men directors, theyíre often dominated by men and itís a thuggish environment and I donít like it. Iíve forced directors to hire extra women just to lighten it up because there is a certain energy that they have, especially at the end of the day when men get grumpy and women keep it light. They behave better, their manners are better and theyíre nice to have around.†

Did any movie star inspire your performance?†

Iíd been to Japan once before with a friend of mine who is a professional golfer and he was invited to a tournament. They had all these banners at the golf course selling Asahi beer, I think, and there was this beautiful girl holding up the thing and this sign was all over the place and finally on the last day, the sign fell down and I picked it up and realised on the back of it was a man holding a beer bottle and it was Harrison Ford. And he had this look on his face that was like it was all they could get him to do! So when Sofia said my character would be doing a commercial, I told her I had the face for that one and I still had it because I kept the picture and took it home with me! And she said she had one of Kevin Costner and sure enough, she sends me this picture of Kevin Costner holding a can of expresso coffee and his face was the absolute same pose Ė so miserable! Itís like, ĎIím doing this for money, I donít drink it, I donít like it, I hope they donít see this in Illinois!í So it was basically my Harrison Ford-Kevin Costner face I was doing when I held up my drink and it felt absolutely right!

Would you do a commercial if they asked you?
You would think Iíd have gotten an offer to do a commercial but no. My only hope is that the movie does well in Japan and then thereís a chance they might call!

How do you feel about the way your career has been going lately?
I like the roles Iím getting. I think if you hang in there long enough and you donít just take every job that you get offered or every job that you could have, and you donít go looking all the time, then the good work sort of shows up. Iíve been very lucky, Iíve had some good young directors find me like Wes (Rushmore) and Sofia and Iíve enjoyed it. I really enjoyed the shooting of this movie as much as any job Iíve ever had.

Published January 1, 2004

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Bill Murray


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